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Monthly Short Story Winner: Maiden, Mother, Crone

Maiden, Mother, Crone by Unknown Artist

The depiction of women in fantasy is a controversial, fascinating, and ongoing topic.

This month we had our entrants write a story about women. Specifically, we wanted a story with at least two main characters/POVs and those two had to be picked from the aspects of the triple goddess: maiden/virgin, mother, and crone. This didn’t mean they had to write a story about a goddesses or their avatars. We wanted a maiden and a mother, a maiden and a crone, or a mother and a crone as the main protagonists of the story.

Also, we don’t think that this needs being said on this site, but just in case: Main character means the person who acts. No damsels in distress. We wanted dragon slaying princesses.

Rules:

1. This can be prose or poetry.
2. The story must have at least two main characters. Maiden and Mother, Mother and Crone, or Maiden and Crone.
3. Prose must be 500-1500 words long.
4. Poetry must be 100-750 words long.

This month’s winning story was by John Kelly, with “Ghosts at the Bonfire of Birth”. Congrats on your win, John!

You can find all our entries here.

And now on with the story!

– – –

house by FisHgRiNd

“Ghosts at the Bonfire of Birth”
by John Kelly

Gemma is standing knee deep in a rushing stream with a pole in her hands when Warren Miller comes hollering down the path from the cottage like, well, like what he must be – a man who needs the midwife.

“She’s early!” Warren pants, hands on his knees.

The miller’s new wife, Avlen, is young; this is her first. The first babe always takes longer, so Gemma ignores the nervous father and makes another cast.

She pauses in the garden before going in to get her kit. Her husband’s ghost watches a snail navigating an eternity of sodden wood across a mossy stump. Gemma has him pinned to the spot with a spellstone so he won’t follow her. There will be plenty of ghosts at the millhouse. She doesn’t need him making one more.

By the time the miller’s wagon comes to a halt, it’s full night, and the ghosts have gathered from miles around, rustling like moth wings in moonlight. It’s like this at every birth, the lonely dead basking in the warmth of a newborn spirit, like a bonfire on summer’s eve.

The miller walks through them unseeing. When he opens the door, light spills out, along with a woman’s keening, throaty moan, and a muffled curse.

“I’ll be in,” says Gemma, with authority honed on thirty years’ worth of worried fathers-to-be.

She turns to the ghosts. “There will be no rush to get inside this house. When it’s done, I’ll bring out the babe for you to bless – as is right.” She takes a handful of round, white stones from her skirt pocket and lines them up on the ground in front of the door.

A whisper rises from the ghosts like birch bark moving in a breeze. What about Morgen? The question rustles from shade to shade.

Gemma mentally kicks herself that she forgot the miller’s first wife.

In the house, rasp the ghosts.

Well, you’d figure. Morgen Miller was a woman you didn’t take lightly, and if you did, you regretted it. What else would you expect but that in death she would stay close to her children, her husband, and her husband’s pregnant new wife.

Avlen Miller thinks that babies cannot be worth all this sweat, pain, and ugliness, no matter how much her husband has tried to convince her otherwise.

Avlen doesn’t like ugliness. She doesn’t like dust, bodily fluids, or noise. Which is why no one expected her to marry a widower with a dust-cloud of a mill and two young children. But Warren Miller loves Avlen, and Avlen was surprised to find she loves him back.

A grey figure condenses like an iron mist in an empty corner of the room. It drifts unseen toward Avlen as to a magnet. It stretches out a long, ethereal finger aimed at the center of her sweating brow, then pulls back as the miller rushes into the room.

“Darling,” he cries, going to one knee. Avlen crushes her husband’s hand with the desperation of a woman locked in a tug of war with her own body. Two children, a nine-year-old girl named Tilda and her younger brother, peer around the door.

“You’ll pay for this, miller,” says Avlen, groaning and laughing at the same time.

The grey shape looms again. The children see it, and are caught between fear and love. The finger stretches out, brushing Avlen’s hair. She cries out and goes rigid, her back arching in pain that blanks her mind to anything outside itself.

“That’s enough of that!” The midwife strides into the room, breaking the spell.

Avlen collapses as though her strings have been cut.

“You, here.” Gemma summons the girl. “You, out,” she orders the miller, who catches up his son and disappears until summoned.

“Get another blanket, Tilda,” Gemma tells the girl. She takes Avlen’s wrist between calloused fingers. One, two… three. The pulse is thready. “Wake up,” she says. She pinches Avlen’s arm, and smiles at a satisfying yelp.

“That’s better,” she says.

Avlen swims up from the dark. The face of the midwife looks down at her. Gemma, she thinks. She smiles weakly.

The blanket arrives. “You’ll want it off again in a minute, I’m certain,” Gemma says. “But Tilda is going to sit right here and make sure you don’t.” Tilda nods, filled with pride and fear at being deputized by this terrifying old woman.

“Now, stay calm and pay no mind to me,” she tells Avlen. “I have some things to take care of.”

“No,” says Avlen, the haze clearing from her mind.

“What?”

“No. I need to know everything that’s happening. You say stay calm, not to mind what you’re doing. Well, I’m the one trying to push this thing out of my body, not you.” A contraction bursts in her like bottle lightning, but she locks eyes with the midwife until the older woman nods.

“Alright, then,” Gemma says, thinking, this one has grit. She looks at Tilda, who is mopping her step mother’s forehead. “Your mother is here, isn’t she, child?”

Tilda glances to the corner then back to the midwife. She nods seriously.

Gemma nods back. “The ghost of Morgen Miller is in this room,” she says. “She’s here for the babe, Avlen, and for you. I feel her jealousy and anger, like a wind across the ice.”

“Hah,” says Avlen. “I’ve been shooing that damned woman out of the house ever since I got here.” She looks to her step-daughter. “I’m sorry, sweetling, but she doesn’t belong here now.”

Gemma shakes her head. “Shooing her? The only thing keeping her in that corner over there is my own strength, and that won’t last if I don’t stop answering your questions and start spelling.”

“Yes, shooing her. Dust a broom with dried agrimony and walk backwards, sweeping.” Avlen smiles at the midwife’s open surprise. “But I ran out of the herbs last week.”

“Well,” says Gemma, “I have my own ways.” She draws out five, perfect white stones and holds them to her lips. She pauses. “Here,” she says to Tilda, “you do it.”

The girl edges toward the midwife, her eyes moving from the grey shade to the living woman gasping with another contraction. Finally, she lowers her face and breathes into the midwife’s palm.

“Good girl,” says Gemma. “You don’t want to be here, right now, Tilda. Go find your father and brother.” Tilda flees the room, but stops and slips back to watch the midwife do her magic.

Gemma rises and faces the ghost of Morgen Miller for the first time. She appears as a spinning cloud of black particles with a shape forming and deforming from one moment to the next. Jealousy radiates from her like a form of inverted light, dragging at the very heat in the old midwife’s bones.

“She’s not yours,” says Gemma. She places a white stone on the floor of the room, between the bed and the ghost. “Not the baby and not the mother.” She places a second stone, then a third, forming a shallow triangle. “You can stay here if you want.” A fourth stone slides between two of the others. “But only if you behave.”

She makes to set the fifth, final, locking stone in place.

BEHAVE?!! The ghost storms out of the corner, flinging its black arms as wide as the room. Anything not nailed down spins into a maelstrom that careens into the midwife like hail.

BEHAVE?!!

Gemma stumbles back, covering her head with her arms.

THIS IS MY HOUSE!! The ghost rises like a wave and crashes onto the midwife, scattering the stones.

“Mamma!” screams Tilda from the door.

“Tilda!” cries Avlen.

Tilda, moans the ghost, gathering into a nearly human shape.

“The stones,” gasps Gemma, blood running from nose and mouth. “The stones at the door, child.”

Tilda stares at her, then comprehension blooms and she runs from the room.

“She’s mine,” Avlen says to the ghost. “My daughter.”

Avlen pushes herself out of her bed, breath heaving. “My daughter. My baby. My husband.” She faces the ghost. “You are not welcome here.”

Tilda races to the front door of the millhouse, past her father and brother, throwing it open to the night. Five white stones lined up in the dirt form a barrier against the gathered ghosts of Canford.

The dead have been waiting patiently. Tilda hurls the stones into the trees.

With a rush like a sea of sand, the dead sweep into the millhouse, jostling, pushing. The ghost of Morgen Miller tries to stand before the tide. Tries, and fails, screaming, her black soul merged, crushed, dissolved into the mass.

The room settles. The dead, gathered close, waiting for the warmth of a soul entering the world.

Gemma gets to her feet, and helps Avlen back to her bed. Tilda joins them, and Warren Miller looks in from the door, holding his son in his arms, confused and concerned.

“Well,” breathes Gemma, shakily, “Let’s get this done.”

“Us?” says Avlen, holding her family close. “Who’s having this baby?”

– – –

Congratulations again to John Kelly! If you’d like to enter our monthly writing contest, check out our forum for more information.

Happy Writing!

Title image by FisHgRiNd.

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